The University of Illinois’ State Farm Center: The Renovation of a Mid-Century “Flying Saucer”

By Lisa Napoles
 
One element of the dialogue that arose from the campaign to save the former Prentice Women’s Hospital designed by Bertrand Goldberg focused on the feasibility of repairing and preserving thin shell concrete structures. Thin shell concrete is costly and complicated to maintain, and, as in the case of Prentice, designs that are highly specific to the building’s original function can present challenges to adaptive re-use.
 
Photo (left): State Farm Center (formerly University of Illinois Assembly Hall), Harrison & Abramovitz, architects, 1957-1963. Photo credit: Creative Commons
 
While the discussion of preserving Prentice’s concrete shell was left largely to architects and engineers, the dominant theme in the debate about the former hospital was the fact that many people perceive Modernist concrete buildings as alienating, frequently using the word “eyesore” to describe them. The renovation of the former University of Illinois Assembly Hall is a preservation success story of the monumental concrete building that was saved, in large part, due to strong community support, and which generations of students have referred to as the “flying saucer.”
 
The former Assembly Hall was designed by Wallace K. Harrison (1895-1981) and Max Abramovitz (1908-2004). Harrison received his early architectural training in Worcester, Massachusetts before attending Columbia University from 1916 to 1917, and later studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. While attending Columbia and again following his return from Paris, Harrison worked intermittently for McKim, Mead, & White.1  
 
Max Abramovitz received his bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Illinois in 1929 and his master’s degree from Columbia University in 1931. Abramovitz apprenticed to Harrison as an associate in the firm of Corbett, Harrison, & MacMurray. The architects formed Harrison & Abramovitz in 1945.2Between 1939 and 1942, both Harrison and Abramovitz taught at the Yale University School of Architecture, and are credited with changing the program from Beaux-Arts-influenced to Modernist.
 
The firm is best-known for commissions such as the United Nations headquarters (1947-53), Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (1967-71), as well as Harrison’s independent commission, the fish-shaped First Presbyterian Church (1953-8) in Stamford, Connecticut.  Where First Presbyterian Church is significant for the use of pre-cast concrete panels in its design, Harrison & Abramovitz chose cast-in-place thin shell construction for their Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
 
Assembly Hall was constructed between 1957 and 1963, and cost $8.35 million to build. Amman & Whitney were the structural engineers on the project, the same firm involved with the construction of two notable thin shell concrete structures, Kresge Auditorium (1955) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the TWA terminal (1962) at John F. Kennedy International Airport, both designed by Eero Saarinen.3The arena was designed to function as a sports stadium, a concert hall, a theater able to host professional as well as student productions, and a convention hall. The structure is composed of a concrete bowl measuring 400 feet in diameter topped by a “folded-plate dome,”4described at the time as the largest in the world.5The roof rises 128 feet above the floor at its apex and covers seating for 16,000.
 
The outer rim of the roof is a post-tensioned compression ring which counters the thrust from the dome. The ring is supported by forty-eight massive reinforced-concrete radial buttresses. The seating bowl was sunk into the ground to allow access to seating at the midpoint of its slope and provide direct entry into the glazed concourse and exposition space. The entire surface of the dome is lined with a two-inch-thick layer of acoustical material, which was placed in the formwork, for sound absorption. The intent was for the arena to emulate the acoustical qualities of an outdoor venue. Max Abramovitz said of the building, “The Assembly Hall is a big, raw kind of thing all poured in place; the idea of concrete is different in this country. Here, manpower is expensive and materials cheap; the opposite is true in Europe, and their structures are light, strong, and fine. They are not rich, but have come up with a new kind of richness.”6
 
Photo (above): State Farm Center (formerly University of Illinois Assembly Hall), Harrison & Abramovitz, architects, 1957-1963. Photo credit: Progressive Architecture
 
Upon its completion, Assembly Hall attracted much attention from the American and international architectural press, including Bauen und Wohnen and L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui.  An article in the April 1964 issue of Progressive Architecture focused exclusively on the lighting design.7The article described the emphasis placed on preserving the character of the building at night, achieved by lighting the building’s underside entirely from interior sources. The light that floods out of the glass walls produces the effect of the dome hovering over the ground.  
 
Despite the singular character of the building, Max Abramovitz described Assembly Hall as demonstrating connections to a broad range of building types:
 
“There are many precedents for the building; the big, round shape has appeared many times; there is the openness of the Roman amphitheater; the top is like saucers tied together; the compression ring has been used in water tanks; the undulations add strength to the dome; Nervi has developed beautiful spaces by using many pieces of precast concrete locked together.” 
 
In the decades since it opened, Assembly Hall has served as the home of the University of Illinois men’s basketball team, as well as hosting every type of event from concerts to monster truck shows. As the building approached its fiftieth anniversary, the University of Illinois established a committee under the direction of former Athletic Director Ron Guenther which initiated a study in 2008 to determine whether the Assembly Hall would be replaced or renovated. That same year, statewide preservation advocacy organization Landmarks Illinois named the stadium to its “Ten Most Endangered” list. Bolstered by enthusiastic support from students as well as local residents, the committee agreed to renovate Assembly Hall to bring the building up to date and guarantee its usefulness for decades to come.
 
Photo (left): State Farm Center (formerly University of Illinois Assembly Hall), Harrison & Abramovitz, architects, 1957-1963. Photo credit: Progressive Architecture
 
The renovation process began in 2011 when AECOM was retained to produce conceptual designs and construction documents, while the construction management contract was awarded to Turner Construction Management of Chicago. In May of 2013, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees approved the 30-year, $60-million naming agreement that changed the name of the arena to the State Farm Center.
 
The University of Illinois projects the costs of the renovation to total approximately $157 million, financed by a bond sale that concluded earlier this year. An additional $95 million dollars has been raised through donations and fundraising for the project is ongoing.9Demonstrating their support for the continued use of Assembly Hall, University students approved a referendum to raise student fees on a per-semester basis to help cover the cost of renovating the arena.10 
 
The renovation is currently in the second phase of a six-phase project that is scheduled to be completed during 2016. The project includes work expected of a stadium renovation, such as updating of mechanical systems and bringing in new amenities for attendees. More critical from a preservation perspective, the renovation also includes new entrances and expansion of the exterior walls planned for the later phases.  As the arena does not have official landmark designation, the building is not subject to a review process to inform how sensitively these changes are implemented.
 
Speaking about Assembly Hall, Max Abramovitz said, 
 “I always had a dream of developing a building that would look as though you couldn’t take a single thing away from it without its falling down; in which every element functions, and you can feel its vitality.  If someone says, “I don’t understand why you did that,’ then there is something wrong. If you feel you can understand it, then there is a statement of beauty. I want people not just to use the Assembly Hall; I want them to feel it”11
 
The University of Illinois has a website dedicated to the renovation project, entitled “Illinois Renaissance,” where ticket information, renderings, and a construction webcam can be found: http://www.fightingillini.com/statefarmcenter/
 
Photo (right): State Farm Center (formerly University of Illinois Assembly Hall), Harrison & Abramovitz, architects, 1957-1963. Photo credit: Creative Commons

Lisa Napoles received her Master of Science in Historic Preservation degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  She lives on the South Side of Chicago, where she works in historic preservation.
 
[1] Victoria Newhouse, “Harrison & Abramovitz,” in Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, 457.
[2] Victoria Newhouse, “Harrison & Abramovitz,” in Grove Encyclopedia of American Art, 457.
[3] Theodore H.M. Prudon, FAIA, Preservation of Modern Architecture (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley 
   & Sons, Inc., 2008), 95.
[4] “Stadiums,” Architectural Forum (Sept. 1963): 97.
[5] “University of Illinois Spectacular,” Architectural Record (July 1963): 111.
[6] “University of Illinois Spectacular,” Architectural Record (July 1963): 114.
[7] “Assembly Hall Lighting,” Progressive Architecture (April 1964): 177.
[8] “University of Illinois Spectacular,” Architectural Record (July 1963): 114.
[9] Christine Des Garennes, “Moving Fast: Work Begins on State Farm Center Renovation,” News-Gazette, March 9, 2014, accessed June 28, 2014, http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-03-09/moving-fast-work-begins-state-farm-center-renovation.html
[10] “Case Statement,” Illinois Renaissance, accessed July 3, 2014, http://www.fightingillini.com/statefarmcenter/case-statement.html#
[11] “University of Illinois Spectacular,” Architectural Record (July 1963): 113.
 

 

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